A shot by shot breakdown of the prologue in Quentin Tarantino's THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)
To say that Quentin Tarantino is a man of dialogue is putting it mildly. From the very first frame of his very first film (1992's groundbreaking debut Reservoir Dogs), his talent for the written word is made abundantly clear ("Let me tell you what 'Like a Virgin' is about. It's all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song. It's a metaphor for big dicks"). His imitable voice is visceral; it grabs us by the unsevered ear and lodges in the frontal lobe of our brains.
"There is a poetry aspect to my dialogue, there is a musical aspect to my dialogue" - Tarantino
This is not pretension or unruly ego. Samuel L. Jackson always knows in what key to sing when delivering Tarantino's words, often with transcendent results. The same can be said for so many others: Michael Madsen, Christoph Waltz, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel and even Chris Tucker.
So when said filmmaker (filmmaker being a term I recently learned as having been coined by legendary director Ida Lupino!) opens the beginning five minutes of his newest bloodstained western, The Hateful Eight, without a single word of spoken verse, what we are left with are images/compositions.
The film unfolds in six sections: a prologue and five subsequent chapters. No dialogue nor characters to deliver it, the opening portion runs four minutes and thirty seconds. Lets go through each shot one at a time and dig a little deeper into the imagery employed by Tarantino in his prelude and see how it sets us up for the intricate, Whodunit narrative that follows.
"I have one camera on the set and the only shot we're shooting is the shot I'm framing. I frame the shot! And Bob Richardson lights the shot for that frame and that's it!...Any composition you see in my movie was composed by me and that's what we meant to do" - Tarantino
The prologue itself is divided into two sections. Let us consider these sections as two separate perspectives. First, lets look at the overall structure of shots and when they occur:
- OVER BLACK : 0:00-0:30
- SHOT 1 : 0:30-0:50
- SHOT 2 : 0:50-0:59
- SHOT 3 : 1:00-1:05
- SHOT 4 : 1:06-1:16
- SHOT 5 : 1:17-1:21
- SHOT 6 : 1:22-1:27
- SHOT 7 : 1:27-1:31
- SHOT 8 : 1:31-1:38
- OVER BLACK : TITLE CARDS 1:38-1:49
- SHOT 9 : 1:50-4:30
- OVER BLACK : CHAPTER 1 TITLE CARD
With shots 1 thru 8 (0:30-1:38), I suppose we perceive the world through two possible points of view. (A) Maj. Marquis Warren's perspective, whom we later learn "circumstances forced us to take the long around, my horse couldn't make it" to the point where he meets the stagecoach at the beginning of chapter one. Or (B) our own perception, meaning we are viewing the world as a character in it. We are on foot hoping for a stagecoach, passerby on horseback, anybody that will pick us up (like Warren and Chris Mannix, both stranded and in need of a lift).
Between shots 8 and 9 (1:38-1:49) are title cards over black. This is the division of perspectives between first half of the prologue and the second.
Shot 10 (1:50-4:30) is one long, continuous reverse dolly shot, two minutes and forty seconds without a cut! This perspective is Tarantino giving us a more privileged cinematic view. It is this point of view that recurs throughout the film (Tarantino's voiceover narration, allowing us the glimpse of Channing Tatum in the cellar the moment before he bids adios to Maj. Warren's huevos, to name just two examples). It is feeding us information that other characters in the film are unaware of.
*NOTE- I am not claiming that any of these descriptions/ideas are what Tarantino intended to convey with this iconography. Every individual who sees the film will walk away with their own interpretations/feelings/conclusions as well as their own versions of the story and what happened to these characters prior to the events depicted in the film (i.e. Aldo Raine's neck scar in Inglourious Basterds). Don't see any validity in my argument? I'd love to hear yours so please comment and set me straight!
0:00 - 0:30 OVER BLACK
Over thirty seconds of black, Ennio Morricone's Oscar winning score seeps in with a very quiet, almost 2001-esque, dawning of time quality as the image begins to appear.
SHOT 1 : 0:30 - 0:50
We fade in (like an eye opening) on a beautiful Wyoming (actually Colorado) mountain, the top half of which is completely shrouded in clouds. With an infinite number of possibilities at his creative disposal, this is the image he chose to open the film with. Instantly, we are struck by our obscured look. We can see the beginning but the end is hidden from us.
SHOT 2 : 0:50 - 0:59
An all white landscape with a flock of birds that quickly take flight, seemingly forced to flee. Is it our intrusion into this world causing the disruption? Or is it their natural instinct alerting them to a much greater threat stalking these hills?
SHOT 3 : 1:00 - 1:05
Deeper into the landscape he takes us. The slope of the horizon line divides the frame and keeps us slightly off balance. The composition is filled with clouds; without being told we already know there is a big storm brewing (literal and figurative). We are dealing with natural forces beyond our control.
SHOT 4 : 1:06 - 1:16
A gorgeous 70mm frame gives us an expansive view of what these characters are forever up against. This is their existence. A wide left pan extends our view and firmly roots us in this world. The long wooden fence, an instant indicator of the time period, adds even more depth and dimension to the frame.
SHOT 5 : 1:17 - 1:21
Inhospitably thick forests under falling snow fill the frame. More landscape, less visibility, nowhere to escape.
SHOT 6 : 1:22 - 1:27
No cowboys, no homesteads, nothing. Just more earth to overcome or die trying. This particular setup will be used again at the beginning of Chapter 5 (see below). We don't know that this is the road to Red Rock/Minnie's Haberdashery at this moment in the prologue.
SHOT 7 : 1:27 - 1:31
Rows upon rows of white Aspen trees for as far as the eye can see. Aspen trees do not have a long lifespan, being extremely susceptible to many diseases. These trees, much like our soon-to-be-introduced characters, are not long for this world. Another wooden fence line, this time semi hidden in the left of the frame, gives the image a linear depth amidst the many vertical lines created by the trees.
SHOT 8 : 1:31 - 1:38
Now we are completely entrenched in this snow-filled terrain. Many vertical lines appear throughout the film; like the wooden pillars or hanging chains inside the haberdashery for instance. Finally, after eight shots we've come to the title card as well as the division of perspectives.
SHOT 9 : 1:38 - 1:49 - Title Cards over black
We step out of either (A) Maj. Warren's first person perspective or (B) Our own and into a more detached view. In each of his films, writer/director Tarantino presents us with a privileged narrative point of view- we see and learn things that the characters (some or all at any given moment) do not know. This technique is enhanced by the structuring of his films into chapters or segments of interrelating characters/events as well as creating tension in the audience.
SHOT 10 : 1:50
A rendering of the sacrifice of Jesus. This is the first face we are shown in this film. For the next two minutes and forty seconds, we hold in this one shot, slowly panning back to reveal more and more of what we are seeing.
Alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.
With the weight of the world on his shoulders, God looks down on his creations. It (the icon, idol, wooden sculpture) evokes an appropriate mood of sacrilege. This image does not imbibe us with any sense of forgiveness, hope or redemption, in fact quite the opposite.
SHOT 10 cont. : 3:03
For me, this is the most powerful image in the prologue. As the score intensifies, a low contrast speck of human existence appears out on the horizon. Its placement in the frame, under God's watchful eye, is extremely symbolic and apropos.
SHOT 10 cont. : 3:10
What we slowly begin to recognize as a stagecoach passes behind the image of Jesus and out of his sight. We are entering a world in which God has no dominion. This land belongs to the wicked.
SHOT 10 cont. : 3:22
Now the stagecoach is framed behind the back of the crucified deity. Get behind me Satan! The linear perspective remains pretty much the same from here until the cut; you can make out the trail in the snow. The sculpture appears unkempt, even abandoned. It is a case of Man forsaking God and not the other way around.
SHOT 10 cont.
We may assume upon further reveal that it is a gravestone but with no visible surname inscription along with the lack of any other gravestone anywhere in the frame, I put forth that it's more likely just a lone marker along the trail to Red Rock. It also symbolizes a point of no return.
SHOT 10 cont.
A clearer picture emerges as the forced perspective of the horse-drawn coach rumbles up into the foreground, blowing through the frame with great haste. What once was a small speck now is overtaking the image in size and frame placement.
SHOT 10 cont.
SHOT 10 cont.
The Stagecoach trundles past the crucifix and rolls right out of the frame...
SHOT 10 cont. : 4:26
...leaving salvation in the dust. There is no going back. As a symbol of pure love (and for Christians, of mankind's unmerited forgiveness), it carries an even greater ironic weight in this composition.
SHOT 10 cont.
All these characters are doomed to a futile struggle against the inevitable; they were warned but nobody was listening.
CUT TO BLACK : 4:30
With a hard cut, the prologue is over. The beginning of the end for all the unlucky passengers aboard this destiny-bound stagecoach.
"One forgives to the degree that one loves" - Francois de La Rochefoucauld
There is no love in this company of eight, only varying degrees of hate. Forgiveness only to the degree that one loves sustentation.
The Hateful Eight could even be a revisionist bible parable. God sends a great storm to destroy all the wickedness of this earth (or in this case they destroy themselves). In the Bible, Genesis chapter 6 lists four reasons why God would send a flood (storm, natural disaster) to cleanse the earth.
- "The wickedness of man was great in the earth" 6:5
- "Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" 6:5
- "The earth was filled with violence" 6:11
- "The earth...was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way..." 6:12
This is a film with no blatant heroes or villains. They are all Good, Bad and Ugly. It's all a matter of where you sit. Originally conceived as a continuing adventure for Django, it's revealing to hear the filmmaker talk about the initial idea:
What was wrong with this piece was Django, because basically there should be no hero to this piece. There should be no moral center, there should be nobody for the audience to easily gravitate towards and I didn't want to corrupt Django as much as I would have to in order to put him in this mix. I wanted the mix to be that there is no hero, everybody is some version of a bad guy from at least somebody's point-of-view, depending on your look at it. You can actually look at almost everything...all the bad things that happen that the characters do or people say the characters do, you could look at from those characters point-of-view and see why they do them. But you could also look at it from another character's point-of-view and do not forgive them for doing that and that to me was a very important aspect. - Quentin Tarantino to critic Elvis Mitchell
This film (hell, the whole of Tarantino's filmography) is rife with inventive uses of perspective/point of view and dialectical oppositions. What the imagery of the prologue instills in us, either consciously or unconsciously, is a very real sense that these characters are already dead. Toil, toil they might, but in the end they all will fill dishonored graves.
Special thanks to my brother Austin H for masking as best he could my terrible habits